Former Georgia health commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald was recently named the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by the Trump administration. Almost immediately, critics raised concerns about the 71-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist’s history. During Fitzgerald’s tenure as Georgia health commissioner, she had the Herculean task of combatting the state’s child obesity rates. To her credit, Fitzgerald succeeded in bringing the state down from second to seventeenth in child obesity. To do so, however, Fitzgerald formed a less-than-wholesome alliance with Coca-Cola, a company many would argue is, in part, responsible for the United States’ obesity epidemic.
Fitzerald’s actions do make sense, to some degree. After all, not only was combatting the child obesity rate a daunting challenge: there was also the question of sourcing money to do so. Fitzgerald helmed a program called Power Up for 30, which encouraged schools to give children 30 more minutes of exercise every day, and was almost entirely paid for by Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola donating the money to fund Power Up for 30 is not inherently problematic. After all, Coca-Cola is based in Georgia and engaged in local philanthropic work. However, the strategies Fitzgerald and her initiative employed to combat child obesity are telling. Fitzgerald’s primary focus was to “get our students moving,” as she wrote in a commentary regarding the obesity problem in the U.S. for Coca-Cola’s website. In contrast, many health professionals and institutions— including the CDC— maintain that diet, rather than exercise, is the best way to combat obesity. The CDC also states that “frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain/obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, nonalcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout, a type of arthritis.” While this information is supported by studies, companies like Coca-Cola would rather ignore it, because it hurts their business.
It’s difficult not to question whether Coca-Cola’s generous contribution to Power Up for 30 had something to do with Fitzgerald’s focus on exercise rather than diet. Now that she is the head of the CDC, some worry this former alliance will continue on a larger scale. The president has spoken about cutting the CDC’s funding, meaning that the organization will come to rely more heavily on private funds to continue its work.
While Fitzgerald’s relationship with Coca-Cola is cause for concern, the CDC has a history with the beverage giant. The CDC Foundation received more than $1.1 million from Coca-Cola from 2010 to 2012, most of which was earmarked for programs combatting obesity. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, who was the CDC head for eight years during the Obama administration, saw the conflict of interest as too great to accept funds from Coca-Cola for obesity-related programs. “I don’t think it’s justifiable to have Coca-Cola run an obesity campaign that had an exclusive focus on physical activity,” he said. Dr. Friedan approached Coca-Cola with alternative programs in need of funding, but for the most part, the company was not interested.
As for Fitzgerald, she remains open to the possibility of accepting funds from Coca-Cola, but maintains that she will be on the lookout for potential conflicts of interest: “I will continue the review process in place at CDC, and any offers of support would be considered through this process before moving forward.” Whether Fitzgerald truly means that she will reject funds from the beverage giant if there is a potential conflict of interest, however, remains to be seen.
Kaplan, Shiela. “New C.D.C. Chief Saw Coca-Cola As Ally In Obesity Fight.” The New York Times 22 July 2017.
Morris, Meagan. “The New CDC Chief Has Some Close Ties to Coca-Cola.” Metro 3 August 2017.
Waters, Rob. “Trump’s Pick To Head CDC Partnered With Coke, Boosting Agency’s Long-Standing Ties to Soda Giant.” Forbes 10 July 2017.
Waters, Rob. “The Coca-Cola Network: Soda Giant Mines Connections With Officials and Scientists to Wield Influence.” Forbes 11 July 2017.